Kentucky's hardwood industry has a significant role in many of our state's signature industries. Kentucky's forests are harvested to craft the world's finest bourbon barrels, to fence the world's fastest horses and to build the courts for the country's best basketball teams.
Currently, the hardwood industry employs over 56,000 workers and contributes $12.7 billion to the economy every year.
As we look to the future, our forest residuals can create an equally important role in creating a new sustainable energy industry — biomass power.
While Kentucky has long enjoyed a ready supply of energy with abundant coal reserves, new federal regulations are driving up the cost and decreasing demand for coal-generated electricity.
This translates into fewer jobs and economic distress for the hard-working families who have mined coal for decades.
Certainly, the folks in Perry County — who have lost 21 percent of their coal mining employment in the last year — would prefer to have these regulations disappear so that they can get back to work. Unfortunately, these regulations don't appear to be going away any time soon, if ever.
So what do we do to restore Kentucky's previous place among the leading energy states and get people back to work?
Given Kentucky's abundance of forested land (12.4 million acres) and a well-established forestry industry, sustainable woody biomass is a key part of the answer. Woody biomass energy is energy derived from sawmill residuals and wood that would otherwise go to waste or decompose in the forest.
Unlike wind and solar, which fluctuate with atmospheric conditions, biomass is a consistent source of renewable energy available around the clock and a critical asset in our national drive toward energy independence.
To obtain best pricing and comply with government regulations, utilities will increasingly look to secure contracts with multiple energy providers that include a mix of non-renewable fuels (natural gas, oil, coal) and renewable energy, such as biomass, wind and solar. Because Kentucky is already among the leading coal states in America, it is well positioned to capitalize on this changing demand for scalable, diversified energy resources.
In the 2014 Farm Bill, the federal government has earmarked $25 million annually to position biomass for growth in disadvantaged regions of the country.
Just recently, the federal government confirmed its support for biomass energy with the following statement from the U.S. Department of Agriculture:
"The potential to achieve transformational progress on biomass energy in rural America and generate tremendous economic opportunities is very promising. Investing in agricultural and forestry producers who cultivate energy biomass and supporting next-generation biofuels facilities make America more energy independent, help combat climate change and create jobs in rural America."
By creating a market and producing the energy here and now, Kentuckians will be able to avoid having to buy energy from other states. New federally imposed rules will likely force Kentucky businesses and ratepayers to buy clean energy from other states if we cannot produce any here.
Renewable standards or goals are now in place in more than 40 U.S. states and territories. Over the long term, the price of biomass power is much more certain and less risky compared to other sources of electricity and will be cheaper than other base load alternatives.
Diversifying Kentucky's energy sources to include a vibrant biomass industry can have immediate impact. We have a chance to move forward now with a biomass power plant sited for Hazard, where unemployment sits at a painful 12.9 percent.
Opponents of the plant and activists from out of state are behind an effort to stymie this project in court, even though it has already been approved by the Kentucky Public Service Commission.
To learn more about biomass energy, visit http://energy.ky.gov. It is time to get Kentuckians back to work with steady jobs that meet the new demands of a growing, nationally diversified energy market.
In doing so, we can stimulate a sluggish economy with one of Kentucky's leading natural resources: our forests.
Cheryl Avioli of Nicholasville is a former member of the New York State Public Service Commission.